How Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort, became one of the world’s least likely gourmet destinations
(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2015. Photography by River Thompson)
It’s hard to get time with Jean Sulpice, one of the most famous men in Val Thorens. At 7am on a misty morning in the French ski resort, we hitch a ride on a snowmobile with a gruff middle-aged driver and head uphill. Through the fog, we see a shadowy figure on cross-country skis heading upwards, fast. After racing us for a while, we reach the top of Péclet, at 3,100m, almost a kilometre higher than the main resort. Sulpice is barely out of breath as he peels off his ski skins and says he has five minutes. After a few snaps, without warning, he checks his watch, waves, and is off again. “I need to get to work,” he says over his shoulder, disappearing into the mist for the ski downhill to his kitchen.
Sulpice is a busy, and you sense exacting, man. He does this trip almost every morning, calling it his “personal form of meditation”, though he fastidiously times himself and regularly updates his skis. Then he goes back to Restaurant Jean Sulpice, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, and gets to work.
It’s remarkable enough that Sulpice was the youngest ever French cook to win a Michelin star (at 26), and then the youngest to win two (at 31). It’s perhaps more remarkable still that he’s done it all in Europe’s highest ski resort, at 2,300m, where eggs take twice as long to boil, bread dries quickly, wine matures at extra speed and packaged food is wont to explode due to the high air pressure.
Then there’s the fact that when he opened up in 2002, aged just 22, Val Thorens was a relatively unsophisticated “ski factory”, where diners broadly had little expectation beyond a tartiflette and a plate of frites after a day on the slopes.
“Of course, people said it was a crazy idea,” he tells us when we meet him for a lavish five-course lunch. “There were a lot of people who wanted to put sticks in my wheels when I started off here.”
Val Thorens back then was nothing like Courchevel, two valleys across, which is known for its “palace” hotels (the French equivalent of a sixth star), Prada and Fendi stores, and the fact that it’s always been home to Michelin-starred restaurants.
“Apart from the challenges of cooking here, there just wasn’t the clientele back then,” recalls Sulpice. “Val Thorens wasn’t a Courchevel or a Val d’Isère – it was all quite utilitarian, with no five-star hotels, and no classy restaurants. But the skiing has always been fantastic, and I just believed that if I combined my passions for food and the mountains, people would come.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and the picture looks very different. There are great restaurants across town, from the Michelin-starred L’Épicurien, in the swanky Montana apartments; to the Koh-I Nor, in a stunning new modernist five-star hotel; or the rough-hewn, family-owned Chez Pépé Nicolas, a hidden gem that only clued-up locals know how to reach. Still going strong is the wonderful La Belle en Cuisse butchers, where the charming owner Pierre Bosseboeuf has been selling two-year-cured Beaufort cheese, wonderfully oily dried duck and cured local saucisson for 35 years.
But when Sulpice opened his doors, it was tricky. “It was hard to convince people to come for dinner at first,” remembers Sulpice, now a very youthful 37. “I had to completely rethink how I sourced and presented the food, and it was a challenge to convince people to come and have real fine dining in the mountains.
Sulpice was born to a family of restaurant owners in Aix-les-Bains, a thermal bath town on the shores of Lake Bourget in the Savoy region, less than two hours from the Three Valleys and Val Thorens. After training down the road in Le Bourget-du-Lac, he went to work with Marc Veyrat, the legendary Savoyard chef and bon vivant who brought molecular gastronomy to bear on mountain plants and herbs: first at the three-Michelin-starred Maison de Marc Veyrat on Lake Annecy, and then La Ferme de mon Père in Megève, also with three stars. Sulpice shared a passion for skiing with Veyrat, and after coming to do a season in Val Thorens, was hooked. In 2002, when he discovered that L’Oxalys was being built as the resort’s first luxury residence, he secured the rights to run the restaurant, with his wife Magali as sommelier and front-of-house.
“I just love being in the mountains, and this is as high up as it gets,” he says. “Opening a gastronomic restaurant here didn’t make obvious business sense, but in a way I liked that challenge. I couldn’t find the herbs I knew or a lot of the products I’d used around Lake Annecy, but I wanted to stay true to my roots; to cook from the Savoyard terroir, and still to make it work for skiers. At least 90 per cent of my food is still using local ingredients.”
Wanting to “do fine dining, but not be stuffy”, he introduced a simple skier’s platter for lunch, with verrines on a rustic wooden platter. Slowly, skiers got used to eating a Chinese okra velouté or a Crozet risotto for lunch; and started coming for dinner. “It took a while to convince people, just as it took a while for me to figure out how it how this works,” says Sulpice. Over time, he figured out suppliers: like local farmer Cécile Berlioz, who delivers Hurtières Domain saffron; or Eric Jacquier, who catches Lake Geneva féra fish. Also the right flour to use, and thicker crusts, so that his bread wouldn’t dry out.
In 2006, Michelin awarded the restaurant its first star. “It meant so much because my great uncle had won a Michelin star, and I’d inherited all the Michelin guides going back to 1908. To become part of that was unbelievable and it felt like the decision to open the restaurant had been vindicated.” As well as becoming France’s youngest Michelin-starred chef at 26, he had created the world’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant. In 2010, he won a second star.
Around that time, the town was starting to change. Eight years ago, Jeremy Gillon was brought in to helm the kitchen at L’Épicurien in the new Montana apartments, and would win a Michelin star. Val Thorens has boomed as a foodie destination ever since, just as the Three Valleys have – Courchevel now has a total of 12 Michelin stars for eight restaurants, while La Bouitte in nearby Saint-Martin-de-Belleville recently won a third star.
“It’s amazing the difference,” says Sulpice. “It’s nice to think that I’ve been a part of things changing, in Val Thorens and in the wider area. You know when you come here that it’s not just some of the world’s best skiing – hopefully you’ll find some of the world’s best cooking too.”